Four actionable directions for 21st century learning

What we learned about learning practitioners’ biggest challenges to creating 21st century learning.

Colearn is on a mission to help make learning fit-for-purpose in the 21st century. How and what we learn is changing. Educators, in schools and organizations recognize the need to adapt new approaches to better equip our learners for the future. But it’s no easy task: time and resources are scarce, institutions are slow to change, and upgrading oneself is hard work! We want to find creative new ways to help.

In early February, we brought together a group of 20 learning practitioners in Stockholm, Sweden, from a wide range of backgrounds to explore their biggest challenges to designing and facilitating learning for the 21st century. We wanted to better understand: What are the biggest and most common sources of friction, pain and hindrance for educators? And how might we overcome those challenges in service of learners?

The workshop was led by our friends, Fredrik Heghammer and Christian Olsson of House of Sparks. It followed a structure inspired by Strategyzer’s value proposition canvas. Our group of educators included school leaders, HR professionals, freelance facilitators, activists, media producers, edtech entrepreneurs and more. They worked in mixed groups through three main steps: first, identifying pains — forces and factors that hinder them in their current practice of designing and facilitating learning. Second, identifying gains — forces and factors that support and enable it. And finally, coming up with actionable directions — clearly expressed directions for potential future solutions.

Through conversation, exchange and ideation, the group generated a massive collection of ideas. What follows are some of the key takeaways and common themes.


The most common pains were related to challenges of handling complexity, information abundance, and continuous change when time and resources are scarce.

This included things like:

  • finding and selecting the best tools
  • technology and methods
  • understanding the diverse needs of learners in a group
  • ensuring continuous learning and development for educators themselves.

These educators were naturally curious, growth-oriented and driven to serve their learners, but struggle to tame and simplify complexity in their daily practice.


The most common gains were closely related to the pains, but from another angle: they spoke to the readiness and availability of educational materials, tools, people and networks, as well as the passion that exists among educators.

This included things like:

  • great existing networks of educators
  • available tools and content
  • the passion and pride of educators around the growing sense of the importance of learning

What we see here is a recognition of the potential of connectivity and abundance in the 21st century and a will to harness it for positive change.

Actionable Directions

Actionable directions build on the identified pains and gains and are an expression of where we must go. They give direction, without naming a specific solution. They are the seeds of potential future solutions. A starting point for prototyping and experimentation with new approaches. Our educators came up with 10 actionable directions and prioritized them according to urgency and importance. Below are the top four.

1. We must better understand and shape how tech interacts with creating learning experience

With so many pains and gains related to the rise of technology in education, it’s no wonder this was a top actionable direction. Educators see, feel and understand the value and potential of technology. But we also recognize the threats, find it hard to navigate and make choices, and find it hard to keep up with the pace of change.

How might we create better integration in this area to better serve our learners?

This direction is absolutely core for us at Colearn. In fact, we’ve just launched a new online course called Digital Learning Design, which is closely connected to the above. Follow the link to find out more.

2. We must connect and share across sectors of education

The diverse cross-section of educators in the room at the workshop made this point clear: we don’t connect across our silos nearly enough. The school principal doesn’t meet the HR professional; the freelance facilitator doesn’t meet the educational media producer; and so on. Educators are curious and naturally open to learn from others. But our communities tend to be insular.

How might we create connections beyond our silos to learn more from each other?

One way we are already working toward this direction is via the Colearn Community, a network for 21st century educators of all stripes to share, connect and learn together.

3. We must support continuous learning for educators

It should be obvious and natural for educators to ourselves be lifelong learners, always seeking to challenge ourselves and grow to better serve our learners. But constraints like time, budgets and sometimes fear of change hold us back from this. Our work is often demanding and resources scarce. The pace of change and new demands can feel overwhelming. Yet, educators understand, better that most, the fundamental importance of learning and personal growth.

How might we support educators to be better lifelong learners?

4. We must build bridges between what exists and the future

We recognize that we live in an in-between era. The paradigm that dominated the 19th and 20th (the industrial paradigm) centuries has not disappeared — it is still the underlying model for much of our educational system. Meanwhile, a new paradigm has emerged in the 21st century and is rapidly and massively changing the world (the digital paradigm.) This creates messy contradictions and challenges — as educators, we must prepare our learners for the future, but we are often slow or unable to let go of the paradigm of the past.

How might we support educators to be better stewards of the new paradigm?

The summary above gives a snapshot of the top actionable directions, but there were many others, including:

  • we must collect, reflect and share resources
  • we must create and protect purpose in learning experiences
  • we must unleash the whole person/holistic perspective
  • we must create financial frameworks that support 21st century learning
  • we must create awareness of how learning happens — a support structure for learning experiences
  • we must develop empathy to meet people where they are.

What do you say? Do these pains, gains and actionable directions resonate with your experience? How do you work learning fit-for-purpose in the 21st century? Please share your own ideas and perspectives by commenting.

What’s next?

This workshop was the first discovery step in a longer journey. Our aim is to create new solutions that can help realize one or more of these actionable directions in meaningful, scalable ways. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll enter a phase of prototyping — framing focused “How might we…” questions, inspired by the insights here, and starting to create simple, purposeful solutions that we can test, learn from, and iterate over time.

Do you want to be involved or contribute to this work? We plan to work in a co-creative, community-driven way, listening, exploring, building and testing with like-minded educators and others with special skills to offer. This might include more workshops like this one, invitations to give feedback or test prototype solutions, recruitment of specialists and more. Sign-up to receive updates about future workshops and events. And if you haven’t already please join us in the Colearn Community.

Making learning fit-for-purpose in the 21st century represents a massive and complex challenge. It won’t be solved by any single person, institution or solution. What gives us hope and drive to continue is to meet and feel the passion of diverse, like-minded educators from across the spectrum. We’re so grateful for your dedication and work and look forward to continuing to colearn and co-create with you 🙌

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Colearn helps educators, Schools, and organizations to continuously evolve how to create 21st century learning.